We are honored to share this story of hope, dreams, 'seva' or help, rendered in the highest and most selfless form, in the land of majestic and powerful mountains. California climber Frankie Santos shares his remarkable and beautiful story in this feature. A love for the nation of Nepal, the good people of this country and a desire to be of service pulled Frankie into an adventure that is truly unforgettable. The land of Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) called, and Frankie answered that call.
You can help here, as people are still in dire need of assistance.
The Nepal Earthquake of 2015 - An Op-Ed
"Waiting on the text that your going to Nepal" was what the message read. I received this on April 28th, three days after the massive earthquake that rocked Nepal. A friend wrote this to me, knowing my love for Nepal, its people, adventure and excuses to travel. Yet for the first time in awhile, I was establishing some roots after years of roaming and climbing all over the western United States.
I had a good job working at a retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the itchy feet had subsided for the time being. Regardless, the signs kept coming and next thing I knew I was on a flight to Nepal to help out with earthquake relief. I'm fortunate to have grown up in Silicon Valley in the sense I have many affluent friends that are always down to help out a good cause. So after I called and wrote a half dozen friends with my plans, the money appeared for flight, accommodations, and relief materials. Before I knew it, this journey took on a life of its own.
I was heading overseas not to sight see, but to help out others for the first time. This brought rallying friends and family out of the woodwork, quite an unexpected and pleasant surprise. With this kind of support, I got on the plane feeling good about the journey. In 2013 I first visited Nepal. I stayed at KRMEF (Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation) in Kathmandu. I was referred by a friend that was to meet me out there after a trip to India.
KRMEF is a community involved with improving the quality of life for Nepalis in the village of Khahare, just outside Kathmandu. KRMEF is strongly influenced by Rudolf Steiner, integrating biodynamics, Waldorf inspired primary school, sustainable practices and building. The village has a farm, a school, a cafe, as well as homes built from recycled bottles, bamboo, and clay. The founder and president is Krishna Gurung. Krishna started the foundation to honor his son Kevin, who died in a freak accident at the age of 7. After spending two months at the foundation, I developed a strong connection to Nepal and its people.
This time I arrived in Nepal in early June 2015, right before the monsoon began. After reading reports about the destruction and potential outbreaks of disease, I didn't know what to really expect upon arrival. Once I was on the ground, the effects of the earthquake became clear. My flight landed around midnight and the taxi ride was about a half hour from the airport. During this ride, my taxi driver was like a slalom racer, weaving around piles of brick and debris strewn all over the place from the earthquake. It was puzzling to me to see so many people gathered outside their homes around midnight.
I asked the the taxi driver what was going on and he replied, "big aftershock, people scared home fall down". The next day I walked around Khahare to assess the damage. Some homes were still recognizable, but many were just piles of rubble, with small clues of habitation laying around. Many of the homes that were still being inhabited would have been condemned in developed nations. Yet time and time again I visited homes and businesses with major cracks running from the foundation to the roof, usually visible and ignored by most.
The only other volunteer at the time was a fellow from Germany. After my first day at KRMEF he asked where I was staying and I pointed to the foundations main house. His response was "Man, you crazy American, that's a house of cards, a time bomb just waiting to crumble after the next aftershock!". I never quite forgot this warning, even though I decided to stay inside, considering the mosquitoes and monsoon. But I never slept soundly, kinda always keeping one eye open.
On my second night an aftershock hit. The earthquakes in California have a rolling motion, side to side, a result of subduction I figure. The earthquakes in Nepal are very different, more up and down, I guess due to two land masses colliding into each other. This aftershock sent me straight out of my bed, running onto the balcony and on a path from the second story into a bush I scoped the day before that might break my fall. Luckily when I got to the edge of the balcony the quake had stopped and I just held the rail, adrenaline rushing....welcome to Nepal!
The following morning I saw my German friend and he just winked, nothing else needed to be said. We both knew we weren't on solid ground. During my first month at KRMEF, our team focused on building temporary monsoon shelters. People would show up at the foundation asking for help. The stories I heard blew me away. The foundation received a child who's father was paralyzed shielding her from a collapsing roof. She was pulled out from underneath the rubble and her father.
The foundation has 70 children in four classes ranging from preschool to first grade. This little gal was reintegrated into the KRMEF community and showed no signs of trauma to me during my time there. Being maybe 4 or 5, I'm not sure if she fully comprehends what went down, but she has a solid support network in place for the long road ahead to recovery. Other stories came through as many villagers made their way to Kathmandu looking for shelter and relief to their villages.
During this first month we (KRMEF) built about a dozen monsoon shelters, delivered water to residents of Kathmandu, and brought medical professionals and supplies to the village of Dhading in the Himalayan foothills. On days off I would visit Kathmandu. The relief camps were spread all over the city. These camps were filled with village refugees, easily recognizable in their native attire. To see these sweet village people from the beautiful Himalayan foothills, now living in tents in polluted Kathmandu, was a sad sight. Story after story were told about total destruction of homes/villages and zero government assistance.
Supposedly Nepalis that lost their homes were promised 150 USD to build temporary monsoon shelters and 1850 USD after the monsoon to rebuild their homes before winter. This is a tricky one and based on my experience and the foundations information gathering, only about 30% of those that lost their homes have received any financial assistance from the government. Through my personal observations, the government was no where in sight. Aside from some morale boosting signs like "we will rise again" and soldiers here and there, I saw nothing resembling a government relief effort.
On the contrary, I saw a few Oxfam and Red Cross tents, some Indian and Chinese representatives, but mainly local volunteer groups and poor Nepalis comprising the majority of the relief effort. To sum it up, these folks have been left to fend for themselves in a bleak situation. About a month into my journey I met a Nepali named Damber Gurung. The Gurung people of Nepal have a reputation for bravery, honesty and friendliness. Damber is the epitome of this. Add in some innocence and naïveté and you got the perfect little bro.
We became close very quickly as he told me stories of growing up in a Himalayan village, guiding trekkers, and his path to Kathmandu. Like many villagers he had come to Kathmandu for better financial opportunities. But his heart was in Singla, a village in the Gorkha region of Nepal and two villages away from Barpak, the epicenter of the April 2015 earthquake. He mentioned to me that his mother was all alone, except for his 8 year old brother Sunil. Their home had been destroyed and they were living underneath a tarp in the impending monsoon. Knowing this sounded like a recipe for further disaster, we devised a plan to head up to Singla during the monsoon.
I'm a news junky, and part of my morning ritual is reading online news. News seems to go in patterns, and stories take on a life of their own. This was the case with the monsoon in relation to earthquake damaged regions of Nepal. Most news outlets painted a picture of further destruction to come with the rains. Langtang valley, a region I visited in 2013, was now buried 100 meters under a landslide and had completely disappeared. Other regions as well had major landslides and being in the Himalayas during the monsoon was like running the gauntlet. I was reminded of this daily from my online news sources. This was my first real experience with the monsoon, and I didn't know what to expect. On top of that, I was going to a region where people had recently shown me pictures of large fissures in the earth, death, destruction, and people in need.
The bus ride from Kathmandu to Baluwa was a nightmare, but for five bucks it's hard to complain. The bus driver changed a few times on the way; an old man, a middle aged man and a young kid. The kid could race Nascar I suspect, the old man has a few more runs, and the middle aged guy had nerves of steel. The final hours were spent getting stuck in the mud, waiting for sections of road to be built, and hammering a jack out from underneath the bus that got stuck while fixing a flat.
Being my third trip to the Himalayas, I have learned to laugh when the tires of the bus are slipping and sliding along a mud road and I'm looking out the window at a 1000 foot plunge into some sacred river. The hike to Singla was brutal. Not only was this my first time in the monsoon, it was also my first time dealing with leeches. As soon as we reached Barpak, the epicenter of the earthquake, this preoccupation with personal suffering was replaced by the devastation and suffering in this Gorkha village. The village resembled a rock quarry, with piles of stone everyone. Sprinkled amongst the stones were personal items of the former inhabitants. Family photos, important documents, and kids toys would occasionally appear, reminding me these piles use to be homes.
Barpak supposedly had 1400 homes, over 1300 were totally destroyed by the earthquake. The next village we visited was Laprak, situated on the side of a hill over looking the Buddhi Gandaki river. Because of the abundant amount of flat space, Oxfam and the Nepal military were both present. This was a welcome sight considering it was the first sign of outside aid I had seen in the Himalayas. Although there wasn't much progress as far as rebuilding goes, their presence was reassuring to a certain degree. From Laprak one could see Singla across a river gorge, tucked away further into the Gorkha Himalayas. A large scar on the mountainside approach to Singla stood out. Damber explained that the scar was a landslide that had claimed 5 lives during the first big quake.
During the final approach to Singla, the sky switched from clear blue skies to dark clouds, thunder, and inevitably torrential rains. Before the journey I had asked Damber about safety concerns. He had assured me it would be safe traveling in the Himalayas. But as the path became an ankle deep cascade and we started to hear cracking sounds, Damber's facial expressions betrayed his Gurung honesty. We had another mile or two to go, and "safe" became another laughing matter for me. I wanted to say, "this is what you call safe bro?", but I kept my mouth shut knowing I would probably do the same thing if my family needed help.
We came to a bend in the trail where an obvious mudslide had just occurred. To get through this section we had to deviate from the trail, walking up a 10 foot mud berm, down into a small creek, then up the berm on the other side. Damber raced through this section and I followed suit. It felt like running through the cross hairs in a snipers scope. I could sense an ominous energy in this area. About 100 yards past this section I told Damber I needed to rest. His reply was this isn't the place to stop.
I was at my limit, adrenaline and emotions in overdrive. As we were discussing our situation, Damber's eyes wandered to the back drop behind me. Facial expressions are a universal language, and his face said it all. I spun around to witness a chunk of land break off right above the section we had just crossed. There is no doubt in my mind, if we had been a few minutes back, we both woulda been sliding down the mountainside in a horrible death. He looked back at me and said "Let's go!". My reply was "Bro, why you tripping....it's safe, right?". We both laughed and continued on to Singla.
Singla is a small village of about 190 homes. Pretty much every home was destroyed or heavily damaged. The sun had set and we arrived just before dark. Damber's mother was living in a temporary shelter with no walls, bamboo roof and supports, with an Oxfam tarp brought from Laprak. With not much room, Damber's mother cleared a space for me on the only bed they had. Damber's little brother was 8, and I wanted him on the bed, or least his mom, I preferred the floor in this situation. They weren't having it, I'm a guest, I get the bed, they get the floor.
I took off my wet shoes, peeled off a couple leeches, ate some dal bhat, and crashed hard. The next morning when I awoke, we had some visitors. Word travels fast in a village and Damber's family showed up to check out the "tourist". It turns out I was the first person from outside the village to visit in six weeks since the first quake. They had received one air drop from a private group of Swiss folks. I was asked to figure out some of the items dropped off, like dish soap, something they had never seen before. It turned out about half the items dropped were of no use to the villagers of Singla. While it seemed Barpak and Laprak had received aid in the form of workers and materials, Singla felt like it was forgotten and left to fend for itself.
Considering the remoteness and lack of landing pads, as well as no roads for miles, I could understand why they were in this predicament. One of my most vivid memories was watching helicopters fly up and down the Buddhi Gandaki river valley. Every time we could hear the helicopter blades, many of the children would run outside, gather and start screaming "Helicopter, helicopter!". It felt pretty depressing to me at these moments. As the day progressed we started building Damber's mother a better shelter. She had procured some corrugated aluminum siding that would become the roof and walls of her home. By now I had the system down and we had her home built in a few hours. During this time many villagers gathered to watch what was going on.
It seemed there were many homes occupied by elderly women on their own. There were at least a couple times where I looked up to see an older woman watching me work. As soon as I made eye contact, they would smile and gesture "I could also use some help buddy". If I took them up on their request, I would probably still be building in Singla. But I needed to get back and time was of essence. I was thinking about the route back and the fact that the monsoon had just started, and it was getting stronger. Life in the village of Singla is rich and poor. It's rich in its purity. These folks live off the land. There is no electricity in Singla. The only source of water is a community watering hole.
The women are up and out in the fields usually before the sun rises, and come home when it sets. They farm and are typically the ones hauling loads around. The men stayed in the village and we're rebuilding their homes. The kids helped in the fields and played. About a half dozen kids were always nearby, observing, playing and interacting with me. There is a beauty that exists in these villages, where time seems to have stood still. This beauty relates to how village people develop without interference from the outside world. People here seem more friendly, trusting and happy....ironically in some of the toughest living conditions I have ever experienced. I can say this, I witnessed many hopeless situations.
And although my hope abandoned me at times, compassion seemed to take its place. In a sense, these regions represent an aspect of humanity I feel we are losing in modern society. When everybody is in the same boat, and survival depends on cooperation, people shine in my opinion. On the flip, when everything is comfortable and peoples needs are met, there seems to be a disconnect, or maybe even apathy that develops towards others in a crowded society. I had mixed feelings initially about Singla. Right after the close call with the landslide, I found myself questioning their situation. I thought to myself if they want to live so far out here, then they should realize they are on their own. After a few days in the village and the landslide a fleeting memory, my feelings and opinion changed.
The genuine kindness that existed everywhere in this village is hard to find in the cities down below. The village of Singla, like all other Himalayan villages, represent the real Nepal to me. Visiting these villages is like stepping back in time to a simple way of living, totally integrated with nature. The sights, sounds, and smells seem so much richer in the backcountry. And the food always tastes better in these regions. Life is vibrant and natures energy radiates everywhere you look. About 90% of Nepal's economy is based on tourism. Most tourist associate Nepal with the Himalayas.
I've trekked in the regions of Annapurna, Langtang and Manaslu. The villages of the Nepal Himalaya play a major roll for trekking enthusiast like me, from providing food and shelter to guides and porters. And when I look back on my adventures, the mountains and destinations blend together. What really makes an everlasting impression are the people, the villages, and the friendliness that exists everywhere. This is what truly makes the journey so special for myself.
The connections I have made along the way become a guiding force in my outlook on life. There were many times during my stay in Nepal where I asked myself what am I doing here? I'm a dreamer and can get lost in visions. This was the case on the flight from San Francisco to Kathmandu. I envisioned myself helping rebuild Nepal and rallying the people. This vision was similar to a Bollywood movie, switching back and forth from scenes of rebuilding Nepal to scenes of marching and dancing in the streets. As the movement grows, a legion of dancing volunteers and locals puts Nepal back together.
It's fun for me to imagine these things, laughing to myself looking out the plane window and making the long flight more bearable. In reality things were much different. Although there were moments of dancing and rebuilding, many areas of Nepal don't have much to sing about. These areas are hanging on by a thread and their future doesn't look so bright. The flip side to this is the resiliency of the Nepali people. These are some strong folks that won't be waiting around for handouts. They will make do with what they got and keep smiling the entire time.
Of course bringing aid to these areas is important, especially the remote areas of Nepal like the village of Singla. No doubt money can help the situation. And for those that can't up and go trekking to Nepal, sending money to a reputable organization is a solid way to go. But for those of us lucky enough to travel, Nepal is a great place to consider. Now that the monsoon has receded it's a much safer time to visit Nepal. I'd say one of the most important things I learned from this journey is the importance of gestures. Just showing up to these areas, pretty much forgotten in the aftermath of the earthquake, was a significant symbol, a symbol that somebody knows and cares about their situation. I didn't have enough money to help out like I had wished I could. And there were times when I was physically and mentally exhausted, could've pushed on, but didn't.
These are the things between me and myself to reflect upon. They make me who I am and also push me towards the man I want to become. There is one thing though that feels untouchable by personal judgements. The feeling of love and appreciation I received from the earthquake survivors was golden.
And although my backpack wasn't filled with money and chocolate like I would have liked it to be, I couldn't tell the difference in how I was received by the people of Nepal. It would've been nice to help more, yet just showing up seemed to really matter. There are many ways of helping out with the earthquake relief to Nepal, from sending money to sending loving thoughts. And if you're in the fortunate enough position to visit Nepal or have considered going, now would be a great time. Visiting Nepal was my attempt to be of service to others in a place near and dear to my heart. In retrospect, I recognize how this journey helped me just as much as it did the people of Nepal. Namaste."
Please help if you can, as a lot remains to be done: Donate here. Thank you.
Op-Ed conducted by Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
Administrator of the Facebook Page 'An Interview With'.
Editor-in-Chief of ClimbSkiBoulderMagazine.com
Interview © Vera Kaikobad L. Ac.
Op-Ed © Frankie Santos
Images © Frankie Santos
On the Cover:
Frankie Santos -
The Nepal Earthquake of 2015
An Exclusive Op-Ed
Cover Date: September 5th, 2015